(Bloomberg) -- A divided Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of Mike Pompeo to be the next secretary of state, paving the way for the CIA director to gain approval from the full Senate later this week and handing a victory to President Donald Trump.
The committee on Monday backed Pompeo’s nomination after Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, reversed his earlier opposition. Paul had come under pressure from fellow Republicans -- including Trump -- to ensure Pompeo didn’t become the first secretary of state nominee rejected by the committee since at least 1925.
After considerable debate over whether a missing Republican’s vote for the nomination could be recorded, the committee voted 11-9-1 along party lines, with Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware voting present to offset the proxy vote of Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson. Isakson was absent to attend a funeral.
Ultimately, the party-line vote didn’t matter much since Republican leaders including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had vowed to bring the nomination before the full Senate this week regardless of the committee’s decision. A negative vote would have been embarrassing for both Pompeo and the White House.
Paul announced his decision in a tweet just before the committee convened, saying that “today I received confirmation” that Pompeo supports “President Trump’s belief that the Iraq war was a mistake, and that it is time to leave Afghanistan.”
Democrats said they were concerned about Pompeo’s perceived hawkishness as well as comments he had made in the past that were critical of Muslims and gays. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the Foreign Relations panel’s top Democrat, said in a statement last week that the former Tea Party congressman also has shown a “preference for military action before exhausting diplomacy.”
Some of the critics expressed concern that Pompeo would embolden what they see as Trump’s impulsive tendencies rather than moderate them, and reverse Democratic policy victories such as the nuclear deal with Iran.
With a razor-thin Republican majority in the Senate and Democrats largely opposed to Pompeo’s nomination, the White House has been playing up his readiness for the job, casting him as an already crucial member of Trump’s foreign-policy circle who sees him most mornings in his role of CIA chief to help deliver the intelligence community’s classified daily briefing.
That reputation was bolstered by Pompeo’s effective designation as the administration’s point person on North Korea, where he traveled over the Easter weekend to meet with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
The White House, in a statement late Monday night, praised the committee’s approval, saying that "the American people are one step closer to having their top diplomat in place at a critical time in our history."
“There is probably no one in the United States that knows more about what’s happening around the world today than Mike Pompeo,” Corker said at the start of the panel’s hearing. Corker cited Pompeo’s close relationship with Trump as a key reason to back the nominee.
If confirmed in time, Pompeo has said he will start traveling overseas immediately. Foreign ministers of the NATO alliance will meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, and the State Department is working out contingency plans to have him replace Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan on the trip in case he clears the Senate.
Along with continuing to shepherd the diplomatic outreach to North Korea, Pompeo will have a key role in advising Trump about the future of the Iran nuclear deal. In remarks prepared for his confirmation hearing on April 12, Pompeo said he was eager to discuss the accord -- which he called a “critical and time-sensitive topic” -- with allies in Brussels. Trump has until May 12 to decide whether to keep waiving sanctions against Iran and remain in the deal.
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